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The Evolution of the Modern Tree

By the coming of the American Civil War the antipathy shown toward the celebration by some religious groups and like-minded individuals was rapidly softening. Indeed, "by 1859, the general attitude towards Christmas had changed sufficiently for the Sunday School Union" to accept the holiday to such a degree that it published hymns and accounts of celebrations. This was emblematic of a general acceptance of Christmas by many denominations.

Godey's Lady's Book, the women's publication of the 1800s that did so much to nationalize Thanksgiving, also played a role in popularizing festive Christmas practices. Through its lighthearted and humorous drawings, its household-decorating hints, its recipes for Christmas confections and meals, and its instructions for homemade tree ornaments, the magazine convinced thousands of housewives that the Nativity was not just a fervent holy day but could also be a festive holiday.

The continuing popularity of Dickens' A Christmas Carol and its "carol" philosophy added yet another element by synthesizing "certain religious and secular attitudes... into a humanitarian pattern." Its assertion that brotherhood, kindness, and charity should be a part of life-- especially at Christmas-- was quickly accepted and added to American tradition.

Governments recognized the growing importance of Christmas by dealing with it as they knew best: by passing a law. The first state to make Christmas a legal holiday was Alabama in 1836. Between 1850 and 1861, fifteen states (including Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) followed suit. A significant result of this "legislation" was the states' recognition of December 25th as Christmas Day. This helped standardize the date for celebration. Previously, celebrations took place at varying times during the month (particularly December 6th, St. Nicholas's day), or on January 6th, Epiphany. Thus, events during the period helped cement the date used today.

The original impetus for legal recognition seems to have come from the business community. The initial legislation forbade the collection of promissory notes on Christmas day and some judicial activities were suspended. Provisions for the closing of schools, banks, and government offices generally did not appear until after the Civil War.

By 1860, Christmas – and the Christmas Tree – had become established. Trees of the period were usually decorated with candles, fruits, nuts, berries, strands of brightly-dyed popcorn, and home-crafted ornaments, but by 1860 glass trinkets made in Germany were becoming available to adorn the branches. Some people, however, were more creative, including August Imgard, a German immigrant, who – as noted above – in 1847 Ohio had the local tinsmith pound out a metal star for his spruce, where it was placed alongside paper decorations.

In the 1870s the earliest ornaments to appear in the stores were flag geometric shapes, as in lead, and included various stars, crosses, butterflies, and diamonds. They were first produced by the toy makers of Nuremberg, Germany, and became popular in the United States between 1870 and 1890.

Although they were a fire hazard, celluloid toys became popular in the mid 1870s and were joined on the Christmas tree by miniature wooden toys – including soldiers, dolls, and birdhouses.

F. W. Woolworth brought the glass ornament tradition to the United States in 1880; by 1890, he was importing 200,000 annually. Initially, the glass ball was offered, but as time went by, all types of ornaments were added, including storybook characters, vegetables, fruit and fish. From 1870's to 1930's, Germans made the finest molds for making ornaments with nearly 5,000 different molds at the time. At the turn of the century there were over one hundred small cottage glass blowing workshops in Europe. Today the Germans continue the tradition of fine craftsmanship – and a corresponding price tag – with the Christopher Radko and other collections.

From 1880 through 1910, Dresden Christmas tree ornaments were sold – small gold or three-dimensional cardboard ornaments, embossed in gold or silver. The realistic ornaments came in a large array of shapes, including camels, storks, peacocks, pianos, sailboats, opera glasses, and much more.

In the 1890s, cotton-batting ornaments were added to the tree decorator’s repertoire. The cotton was folded and glued over wire or cardboard shapes, which they received paper faces and were covered with powdered glass to make them shine. Santa Claus and the angels were among the most popular. At the same time, Czechoslovakian glass-bead makers introduced a new style of glass ornament. Geometric shapes were made with beads and hollow glass tubing that had been strung on wire in a wide variety of shapes, colors and designs.

In 1892, the wire hook for hanging tree ornaments is patented in the United States. In 1909, the Paper Novelty Products Company of New York made the first red, honeycombed paper bells –three inches in diameter. In 1910, Sears began advertising and selling glass ornaments by mail.

During the heyday of turn of the century ornament making, almost all ornaments were made in Lauscha, a small town nested in the Thuringian mountains. After 1918, because of licensing and export problems, Germany was not able to export its decorations easily. Japan and America quickly took up the market, especially in ornaments and Christmas Tree lights. In 1939, Corning became the first company to mass-produce machine-made Christmas tree glass ornaments; before this, all glass ornaments were hand-blown. During World War II, Corning was unable to continue to silver the interiors of their ornaments. Examples from this time were clear glass bulbs, painted with stripes.

After World War II, glass ornament production in East Germany declined. Quantity rather than quality, was the Communist management philosophy. Some old molds fell into disrepair and many others were left to collect dust or were lost. Many of the craftsmen left for West Germany, where many fine lines of glass ornaments are still created. During the 1940s and 1050s, Max Eckardt, an importer of German Ornaments, expanded his Shiny Brite ornament company to be the largest producer in the world. In 1960, Corning resumed decorating its own ornaments, and produces most of the glass ornaments made in America today. Christopher Radko reestablished the Shiny Brite line in the early years of the 21st century.

At Christmas 1882, the world’s first electrically lighted Christmas tree was installed in the New York house of Thomas Edison’s associate Edward H. Johnson. The American patent for the electric Christmas Tree lights was obtained in 1882. General Electric began promoting Christmas tree lights in the 1890s; in 1895, President Grover Cleveland became the first President to use electric lights on a White Christmas Tree. For more about Christmas tree lights, see Bill's Antique Christmas Light Site.

Public outdoors Christmas trees with electric candles were introduced in 1904 in San Diego, in Finland in 1906, in Pasadena, California in 1909, and in New York, Boston and Cleveland in 1912. A similar tree was erected in Philadelphia in 1914. For the New York celebration, it is reported that Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb and the Mayor jointly flipped the switch, lighting the rows of Christmas Trees that lined both sides of Broadway. News stories described it "As the most beautiful event ever seen in New York City, or any other city."

The first electric Christmas tree lights were being sold in New York by the 1920s. In 1923, President Coolidge lit the first White House Lawn Christmas tree to begin a lasting tradition. Twinkle lights became popular in the 1970s. Icicle lights were the rage in the 1990s. Swag lights were popular after the turn of the new century.

By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree, and within 20 years the custom was nearly universal.

In the 1930's, there was a revival of Dickensian nostalgia, not just in Britain, but also in the United States. America made another return to Victorian nostalgia in the 1970s and in the 1980s, Britain followed the fashion. At first this was a refreshing look, and manufacturers realizing the potential created more and more fantastic decorations. Some American companies specialized in antique replicas, actually finding the original makers in Europe to recreate wonderful glass ornaments, real silver tinsels and pressed foil 'Dresdens'.

In the mid twentieth century, artificial trees began to make their appearance. In America, the Addis Brush Company created the first brush trees, using the same machinery which made their toilet brushes! Although at one time, they were rather phony in appearance, today many of them look quite convincing. Some are even made to simulate a particular species, such as Appalachian Fur or ponderosa pine. At the same time, some other artificial trees made no attempt to look like the genuine article, but took innovative directions in appearance. The 'Silver Pine' tree, patented in the 1950's, was designed to have a revolving light source under it, with colored gelatin windows, which allowed the light to shine in different shades as it revolved under the tree. No decorations were needed for this tree, although there was a fashion of silver, gold or satin balls in some areas. As artificial trees improved, and because of their much better durability, their use has continued to rise. Most recently, artificial trees have come pre-wired with hundreds of tiny lights, both clear and multi-colored.

In the 1980s, flocked trees became fashionable in the United States. Initially, the trees were white – imitating snow – but later included numerous colors, including pink and blue.

The late 1990's tree has taken the Victorian idea, but with new themes and conceptual designs. The Starry Starry Night Tree, The Twilight Tree, The Snow Queen Tree, The Toy Tree, The Country Tree, The Gingerbread Tree, The Feather Tree, The Angel Tree, The Santa Tree, The White Tree, The Doll Tree, The Blue Tree, The Nutcracker Tree, The Coca Cola™ Tree, The Teddy Bear Tree, The Fiber Optic Tree and many others.

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